Opinion: Gordon L. Weil

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Trump’s impeachments are behind, but legal problems continue to loom

Donald Trump survived two impeachments but now that he’s out of the White House, his future remains uncertain with legal challenges on the horizon.

by | April 4, 2021

Former President Donald Trump, seen at a coronavirus press briefing in April 2020, is facing legal woes over his taxes and the fallout from the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  

If Donald Trump’s critics couldn’t win in Congress, they want the courts to bring him to justice. The legal complaints keep rolling in.

Trump’s serious problems began when Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican, found 10 “episodes” of potential obstruction of justice. While Mueller found no direct link between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling on his behalf, he reported that Trump had tried to interfere with the investigation.

But Mueller could go no further, blocked by a Department of Justice opinion that a sitting president could not be forced to face criminal charges.  

Freed from any penalty from the Mueller investigation, Trump tried to get the Ukrainian president to investigate an alleged involvement of Joe Biden’s son in a potentially corrupt company there. Trump added pressure by delaying promised financial aid for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.

House Democrats impeached Trump for his Ukraine move, though they skipped over any charges that might have come from Mueller’s obstruction of justice findings. Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted to convict, and the effort to remove Trump from office failed to gain the Senate’s required two-thirds vote.

Next, House Democrats joined by 10 Republicans impeached Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection aimed at getting Congress to overturn his election defeat.  

While GOP senators denounced Trump’s actions, they refused to convict him because he was no longer in office. The same Justice Department opinion that blocked Mueller clearly stated that an impeached federal official could be convicted after leaving office. A Senate majority voted to support that view. 

Most Republican senators refused to side with that opinion. Seven Republicans, including Susan Collins, did accept it and voted to convict Trump, but the effort again failed.

The impeachment process is political. Conviction depends on the offense being so outrageous that members of the president’s own party will vote against him. The second Senate trial vote revealed that convicting a president is probably impossible. 

When the Senate’s unwillingness to act is coupled with protection from criminal charges while in office, a president likely enjoys complete immunity.

An ex-president might face a criminal trial, but the only punitive action is likely to be the verdict of history. Trump’s record-setting two impeachments may be his main legacy.

But that outcome is not enough for his opponents and victims. Having failed to convict him when Trump was president, they continue to hope that he is found guilty of a major offense. Such a decision might be seen as their vindication because it would be judicial, not political.

Democrats intended that a conviction in the second impeachment trial would lead to Trump being banned from holding federal office again. That’s why the Senate trial began even after his term had ended.

Being found guilty in court now could serve the same purpose. He might be sufficiently discredited that his chances at election or perhaps even the GOP nomination would be undercut. Much would depend on the reaction of traditional Republicans plus independents.

Trump’s partisans may believe that losing in court might not stop him. The party keeps working to suppress the Democratic vote in swing states so he could win again with a smaller GOP turnout.  

Numerous federal cases have been brought against Trump, mostly by professional prosecutors. not political figures. There’s a slim chance he could be tried for his Jan. 6 actions. Recently, two Capitol police officers injured by the mob sued Trump.

Though Biden should keep hands off, he might prefer the Justice Department not pursue Trump out of concern that they could appear overly political, especially in light of Trump’s investigation of the president’s son, Hunter.

Beyond the federal cases, Trump remains vulnerable. The ex-president is the subject of state investigations that are completely independent of the federal Justice Department. Other cases in which he is not directly involved could also produce negative results for him.

Both the New York State attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating Trump’s possible tax evasion and whether he lied to obtain business loans. Georgia is investigating his attempts to influence the presidential vote count through direct contacts with its election officials. Conviction in those cases, if they get to court, could be politically damaging.

Among the most serious cases are complaints brought by two companies against some Trump lawyers and his Fox News allies. Trump endorsed their claims that the companies operated voting machines that replaced Trump votes with Biden votes. There is no such evidence, and the companies say their businesses have suffered because of the claims.

If the companies win, the results will further discredit Trump’s false assertion that he won the election, his supporters’ justification for the Capitol insurrection. That could harm his political prospects.

The campaign battles between Trump and his opponents continue. No longer is it only a matter of politics. In the end the courts may have as much to say about Trump’s presidency and his future as the voters did last November.

Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.


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